Productivity is essentially the place where “I can’t get anything done” and “I want to get everything done” have a head-to-head battle. It’s an issue that even the smartest and most successful people out there face. We all seem to be looking for ways to get more done in less time.

The core of the issue, however, seems to be less about how to get the things done and more to do with how to focus on the things. We struggle with directing our brain to the task at hand. And we seem to be in a constant fight with time.

The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique

Many have stepped up to the plate, discovering — and then sharing — a productivity technique that helped them master the challenge of time and focus. One of these fearless leaders is Francesco Cirillo, who blessed the work-world with his own time management approach: The Pomodoro Technique.

A Tomato Timer and a Plan

In the late 1980s, a university student grappled with time management and decided to put a harness on his focus with the only tool he had: a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. He simply gave a structure to time so that he could better do his school work, and the result is a technique that soared in popularity with millions.

Reduce the stress caused by the pressure of time by using the Pomodoro Technique. - Francesco Cirillo

Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato, and you have to admit, the clever name makes you want to try the system, doesn’t it? That, and the fact that so many out there have used it with amazing success.

The Basic Principles

Before I explain the actual technique, it’s helpful to understand the key elements that make it work so well. The technique itself is incredibly simple (as most really good productivity systems are), but it plays off of these four core ideas:

1. Time is your friend.

A common complaint of grown-ups everywhere is: “I don’t have enough time!” We have no control over how the minutes pass, so we do everything in our power to schedule, tackle, and tame the beast that is time. Instead of grappling against it, this technique befriends it.

2. Breaks are part of the flow.

Taking a break from the focus doesn’t stop the magic. On the contrary, it allows the magic to flow more powerfully. In order to create laser-focus, you must allow your brain “off” time. You don’t have to feel guilty for it and it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means you’re on track for achieving what you want to achieve.

3. Anyone can sprint.

A sprint is a short spurt of energy. The technique doesn’t ask you for a marathon. But it does ask that you learn to say no to distractions. You must make a commitment to your own productivity. It’s not something that someone else does for you. In a sprint, you don’t win if you stop for social hour. Social hour can happen later.

4. Simplicity in the structure makes it work.

It’s not complicated. And it shouldn’t be. (Or else no one would do it.) But there are guidelines and structure, and if you want to have success with the technique, you should commit to following the rules as best as you can.

How to Use the Technique

Now, I’m sure you are itching to get started. So let’s talk about the actual technique and how to use it. The idea is that you’ll be using increments of time (25-minute chunks to be exact) separated by short breaks so you can stay fresh. Each chunk of time, we call a Pomodoro.

One day we will be more creative, more productive and yet more relaxed. Unleash Innovation! - Francesco Cirillo

Here are the 6 steps:

1. Identify the task.

What do you need to get done? This involves making a decision on what you should actually do, and we’ll get into that a little bit later. For now, just choose the single task that needs your attention and focus.

2. Set the timer.

A tomato timer is super fun, and you can probably find one online with a quick Google search, but you don’t need that exact timer. Any timer will do, and you probably have one on your smartphone. And since we’re talking Google, you can also type “timer” into your Google search and instantly get a timer! Set the timer for 25 minutes and get ready to focus.

3. Focus on the task.

Give your task your full attention for the next 25 minutes. Block out all distractions, and if something comes up, either ignore it or promise to get to it after the 25 minutes is up.

4. Add a checkmark.

Indicate you’ve completed one Pomodoro by putting a checkmark on your to-do list. There are no fancy instructions for this part of the process, so you might indicate on your list the number of Pomodoros you intend to do and check each as you go, or you might put a check next to the task. You simply want to have some tracking of your progress.

5. Take a break.

Five minutes is perfect. Keep it short. But walk away from your workspace if possible. With all this intense focus, it’s important to give your brain a break in between. Walk outside and get some fresh air. Take deep breaths. Fill up your water bottle or get a cup of coffee. Whatever gives you a sense of “Ahhhhh.”

6. Do the 5 steps above four times through, and then take a longer break.

It’s something you can work up to, but the idea is do “25-minutes on / 5 minutes off” four times. Then you take a longer 20-30 break. The cycle makes sure you build in rest so that you and your brain have the energy to keep going.

Jump In — But Don’t Burn Out

The idea is not to see how many Pomodoros you can fit into a day. The idea is create more focus and get more done in less time. The intention is to build better balance between work and life, so that you are happier and more grounded in everything that you do.

So start slowly. Try doing 1 or 2 chunks in your workday to see how it works for you. Gradually build up to the right amount of Pomodoros for your own personal schedule. If you start feeling like you aren’t meeting your goal and thus feel like you’re failing, then you are trying to do too many. The goal should be on building better focus, not on tracking your “points.”

Customize it to Your Needs

As with any system, the rules are important. Otherwise, why bother? But you can modify the rules if they aren’t quite working for you. For instance, if you function better in 30-minute sprints, as opposed to 25-minute sprints, then, by all means, tweak the system.

We need flexibility, not just in systems, but in how we measure ourselves. We are human beings, and our energy ebbs and flows throughout the days and weeks. Our needs shift, so therefore our structure can’t be so rigid that we ignore those needs in the name of productivity. If we do that, we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment. So be sure to find the right balance for you of structured time management and flexible grace.

The main thing to remember is to stay consistent. Doing 25 minutes, then 37 minutes, then 32 minutes, etc. tends to get you out of the structure altogether and defeats the purpose of the technique. Make sure to also keep your breaks consistent. It may help you to use a timer for them as well.  

Choosing the WHAT

This technique is all about how to improve your focus and structure the time, but it doesn’t give you guidelines for choosing what to actually focus on. The system assumes you already know your priorities. So you have to make sure you are choosing the things that actually matter.

This makes it the perfect opportunity for pairing it up with another system, like the Getting Things Done (GTD) Method — where you actually get organized on your priorities. In order to truly feel productive, it’s really about choosing the tasks that move us forward towards our goals — the ones that give us a sense of purpose and importance.

The Secret Ingredient

Let’s wrap up with a little secret. None of these productivity methods work without this special ingredient.

It’s your commitment.

You have to be willing to put in the work. You have to be invested in the ultimate goal and motivated to make the changes you have to make. If you want to get more done in less time so that you can put more into your personal life, then keep that in mind as you work towards better focus and time management.

And when your day doesn’t go exactly as you planned, commit to trying again the next day — not beating yourself up for some perceived failure. It’s all a learning process, and when you delight in the ongoing journey (and have a little self-compassion), you are more likely to love where you are headed.